Silver Eagle bullion coins have become a highly collectible series. They are also relatively easy for a newcomer to grade because a majority of them are found in beautiful condition right from the Mint. Nevertheless, it is important to learn several of the specific characteristics used to grade all coins in order to arrive at an acceptable grade. Additionally, these large coins provide an excellent learning tool that can train your eyes to detect the imperfections such as tiny flaws or hairlines that govern the topmost grades. This education can be had with a low financial risk for mistakes. Now let’s grade some Eagles.
Proper coin examination techniques are essential; grading is best done in a darkened room with one source of incandescent light (75-100 watts is common practice). Remember to hold the coin by its edge and tip it up and down at the same time as you rotate it in your hand. This exercise will become easier and natural with some practice. Divide the coin into obverse and reverse zones of attention so that you do not overlook an imperfection.
What should you look for?
LUSTER: The luster on these coins is variable in a limited range and on most coins it is exceptional. Mint State coins display a uniformly frosty to satin surface. There are some exceptions on the earlier dates that have a bright, shiny luster that mimics polishing. Proof specimens have highly reflective mirror fields with frosty devices. The reverse proof coins are naturally just the opposite; however, many do not display the stark, solid mirror surface on their raised devices that is characteristic of a mirror field. You will better understand my last remark as soon as you examine a few reverse proofs.
STRIKE: The strike on these coins is universally good. So much so that it usually does not enter into the grading equation unless you can see the granular surface of the original planchet. Places to watch for traces of weakness are Liberty’s hand and the shield on the reverse. Areas of weak strike will reflect light differently and display slight differences in luster. Strike weakness versus friction wear can be determined by the originality of the surface where the design is missing.
MARKS: Imperfections on all coins can be divided into two basics groups – those that occur at some point in the minting process and those that occur after the coin left the press. The marks that happen after the coin is struck are usually more important to consider while grading because Mint-made marks are generally acceptable and may even push a coin into the “mint error” category if significant enough. Most marks seen on nice original coins are either reed marks, thin scratches, spots, or struck-through errors. Unfortunately, many of the man-made marks occur to the coins when they are removed from the tight plastic tubes they come in. As Eagles are mishandled, we find friction wear, damage, wheel marks, and hairlines. The governing factors when considering marks are their location, size and frequency. Size and frequency should be easy to determine. Just count the marks; the larger they are, the more detracting. The “location” part of the equation takes a little study to master.
Obviously, a mark you need to look for that is hidden in the design will generally not be as detracting as one right behind Liberty’s head. Eagles with large numbers of contact marks are the exception. Since any contact mark is unacceptable on an MS-70 coin, be especially vigilant during your examination. Check the tops of letters near the rim where hardly noticeable hits occur. Wheel marks can be difficult to detect unless you tip and rotate the coin through the light. They destroy the original luster and leave a shiny patch of hairlines (scratches). Generally they are seen in the central parts of the design. Hairlines on these coins are usually the result of improper cleaning. They are especially noticeable and detracting on proofs. Since proof Eagles are rarely encountered with bagmarks, the amount and location of hairlines becomes a major factor in their grade.
Mint-made errors such as struck- through’s are common. These are the result of lint, grease and foreign material caught between the planchet and die as the Eagle is struck. These imperfections leave a depression on the coin’s surface. For example, the tiny, shiny blemishes seen on a frosty surface occur where the imperfection (usually grease?) prevents the die from making contact with the planchet. I like to think of them as “micro-craters.” The borders of these imperfections blend smoothly into the surface whereas damage or contact marks usually have a sharply delineated edge. In some cases, you may find that tiny Mint-made imperfections are often overlooked or tolerated on an Eagle graded MS-70. You will need to determine your own personal view of this practice. Longtime readers of this column already know my opinion of what constitutes a “perfect” MS-70 coin – NO IMPERFECTIONS.
This series is plagued by cloudy, white spots and stains that most believe are caused by impurities left on the blanks at the Mint. It is not unusual to find that these spots develop over time on a coin that was considered to be “perfect.” Spots and stains lower the eye appeal of an Eagle tremendously; yet they seem to go unnoticed by many collectors who buy “raw” Eagles. I have illustrated a few examples of mark-free coins sent in to the grading service hoping to get an MS-69 or MS-70 grade.
Since “eye-appeal” is the overall factor that sums up a coin’s grade, stained coins like these three may not even make MS-64!
Until you learn to grade for yourself, it is best to swallow the premium and purchase coins that have been certified by a major grading service.
One other observation I should leave you with. It seems that when silver Eagles are first released each year, there are a large number of perfect coins to be found in the original Mint offerings. As the months go by, the quality of the coins seen at the grading services where I have worked goes down significantly.